February 22, 2020
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Mussoorie Diary

It did not snow last winter. I have spent forty winters in Mussoorie, and I can recall only one when it did not snow.

Mussoorie Diary

The Friendly Crab

It did not snow last winter. Cold, frosty nights, but no snow. Just some hail and sleet one evening. I have spent forty winters in Mussoorie, and I can recall only one when it did not snow. That was my first winter in the hill station, 1963-64. I have known it to snow as late as April, so perhaps there is still a chance of waking up one morning to see the oaks and deodars all decked in bridal white.

I have the reputation of being something of a stay-at-home, but as I get older I find myself getting about more often. There’s an urge to discover new places while one can still stagger around without a walking-stick.

Last December, I spent 10 days in Orissa, courtesy Dr Samanta and my friends at KIIT University and its school in Bhubaneswar. One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Gopalpur-on-Sea, a little-known seaside resort on the east coast. It was quite popular during colonial times, as some of the old bungalows and seafront villas testify. It is rather neglected now, which is a pity, as it has a wonderful beach, a small port and a picturesque old lighthouse. Inland, there are groves of mangoes, coconuts, keora shrubs (the flowers are used in perfumes) and cashewnut plantations. The east coast of Orissa has much to offer to the traveller who is willing to leave the beaten track.

Young Gautam, who was with me, caught a crab when the tide was out, and the guesthouse people very kindly prepared and cooked it for us. Normally I’m non-veg, but it had looked such a friendly, trusting, law-abiding crab that I couldn’t eat it. Gautam had no such qualms. Schoolboys will put away almost anything.

Days of Bibliophilia

And then, last month, I was in Jaipur for the literary festival. No crabs there but authors aplenty, most of them wining and dining to their heart’s content. It is reported that there were a few quarrels too. Writers, like artists and actors, have big egos, and when thrown together in a large arena, are inclined to be tigerish, snapping and biting when provoked.

But it proved to be a hugely popular event, at least with the public. It was heartening to see so many young people taking an interest in literature, English or otherwise. One reason for the fair’s popularity (or so I was told) was a general disenchantment with the murky political scene and all the corruption in high places that has been a feature of the last few months. Young people were turning to literature and the arts in their search for a little fresh air.

Rosy-cheek’d Saharanpur

Book fairs in Delhi, Jaipur and Chandigarh are common enough, but a book fair in Saharanpur? This was where I found myself last week, talking about books in a tent outside a small school called Apple Grove. Saharanpur is known for its roses and mangoes, and apples are unlikely to flourish there; but a longing or nostalgia for apples may have prompted the name. Certainly the children had the sheen and freshness of rosy apples. And a hunger for the written and printed word. There are good bookshops in most of our cities, but in small towns across the country there are no bookshops or libraries and books are inaccessible to those who want to read. Our publishers must move into mofussil India, into the small district towns, where there is a tremendous market just waiting to be tapped, provided the pricing isn’t out of the reach of the young reader.

There is more to life than computer games and TV reality shows. Many young people do want to read, think, write and create something. We must go to them instead of expecting them to come to us.

Ass You Like It

Before leaving Saharanpur, I had the good fortune to spend a morning (courtesy the Commandant) at the Remount Depot, a breeding and training establishment for over 2,000 horses and mules, who go on to become valuable members of our armed forces. They even have their own passing-out parade. Horses need space, and they have plenty of it here, miles of pasture and grassland for grazing and going through their training. The depot was started around 1820, and it still preserves buggies and elaborate carriages belonging to that period.

The older I get, the more I have to learn. Thus my visit to the depot becomes an essential part of my continuing education. “Donkeys!” cried Aunt Betsy Trotwood in David Copperfield, when she found them entering her garden. And, of course, there are donkeys at the Remount Depot, for without donkeys we wouldn’t have mules.           

I like donkeys. I am seduced by their upstanding ears and expressive eyes. Stevenson, in his Travels with A Donkey, found his donkey to be a good companion. Must read that classic again. Also Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. But the latter is strictly for adults.

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